French election a glimmer of hope for social democracy

Moderate socialists battling for survival in face of globalisation and political extremism

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron: illusory hope? Photograph: Yoan Valat/EPA

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron: illusory hope? Photograph: Yoan Valat/EPA

 

The French presidential election in April and May will have profound repercussions for the future of the French left and the very concept of social democracy.

Karl Marx first used the term “social democracy” in 1852, in reference to French parliamentarians who were determined to preserve the gains of the 1848 revolution. The first Social Democratic Party (SPD) was founded in Germany in 1890.

In the 1970s, the Swedish prime minister Olof Palme personified moderate socialism that renounces revolution, accepts the market economy and reaches a compromise between capital and labour in the best interests of society. To this day, Scandinavia remains the model of social democracy.

At the turn of our century, social democracy was triumphant. Heads of government of 11 of the EU’s then 15 members were socialists. Today, they are nine out of 28, their strength in the European Council having diminished from three-quarters to less than a third.

Radicalised left

Not only are socialists being voted out of office, they face a challenge from the newly radicalised left which accuses leftist parties of adopting right-wing polices when in power.

In Greece, prime minister Alexis Tsipras’s Syriza virtually wiped out the socialist party Pasok. In Britain, Jeremy Corbyn buried Tony Blair’s “Third Way”.

In Spain, the socialist party preferred to govern with the conservative prime minister Mariano Rajoy rather than attempt an alliance with the far left Podemos.

A similar phenomenon is taking place in France, where President Francois Hollande, who gingerly called himself a social democrat for the first time in January 2014, has so failed to convince voters that he gave up standing for re-election. Hollande’s social democratic wing of the Socialist Party just lost the primary to Benoit Hamon, a renegade from the far left of the party.

Emile Durkheim, the 19th century French founder of sociology, defined socialism as “a cry of pain and sometimes of anger by men who most feel our collective malaise”. As Mark Lazar, director of the history centre at Sciences Po, told Le Monde: “Classic social democracy has perhaps forgotten to hear the cry of pain and the aspiration for a better society.”

In the decades following the second World War, social democracy created the modern welfare state. “In one sense, the social democratic project succeeded,” says Marc-Olivier Padis, head of international relations at the left-wing French think tank Terra Nova. “Everyone has a pension and basic social protection. The mechanisms of solidarity and redistribution functioned.”

Anxiety about employment helps to explain the exodus from mainstream parties on the left, including the US Democrats. Donald Trump’s win in the electoral college was clinched by fewer than 80,000 votes in the predominantly white, working class states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Their jobs had relocated to southern states where labour is cheaper.

Tax on robots

Trade unions associated with socialist parties are no longer able to protect employment. In France, Benoit Hamon is building his – so far, surprisingly successful – presidential campaign on the “rarefaction” of work. He would partly finance his plan for a universal basic income through a tax on robots.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the European project “became a substitute for [social democrats’] identity”, says Lazar, “because they had a harder and harder time defining what socialism was.”

European social democrats mistakenly thought they could replicate the security and protection they achieved in national economies at the European level. “Europe was supposed to make it possible to participate in globalisation without being devoured by international competition,” Padis says.

“Instead, Europeans see that not only does Europe not protect them, it is the Trojan horse of globalisation, deregulation and competition. That explains why public opinion on the left is turning against Europe.”

Globalisation may have brought much of the planet out of extreme poverty and lessened domination by western powers, but the extreme competition it engenders has destroyed jobs and lowered standards of living in the developed world.

Because social democrat leaders have proved unable to address this problem, voters are turning to populist extremists like Trump and Marine Le Pen, who believe they can “de-globalise” through protectionism.

Padis sees a glimmer of hope for social democracy, if the SPD candidate Martin Schulz, who is also the outgoing president of the EU Parliament, defeats Angela Merkel in September, and if Emmanuel Macron, the independent presidential candidate with roots in the social democratic wing of the Socialist Party, wins the presidency of France.

Even that might be illusory. “For it to work,” Padis admits, “they would have to regain a majority in Europe.”

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